I know I’m not the only one noticing it. The disconnect in face-to-face interactions keeps growing; I see it happening more as smartphones get “smarter.” Smarter than…? I wonder, will smartphones and social media be the biggest distractors of interpersonal communications in our lifetime? I mean, could it be the end of “Hello”?
I’ve been a professional bartender of twenty-five years. Not just once, but dozens of times a day, the bar will be full of people, and not one is looking up or engaging in old-fashioned conversation! Their eyes are glued to flat screens of “smartdom.” Isn’t the point of sitting at a bar to be social?
I imagine what would happen if aliens landed on Earth and observed us. They might think a smartphone is something we need to live, like a heart or external nervous system. I picture the baseball stadium beer guys yelling, “Get your umbilical cords here!” while holding up a nutritious dish of technology with a side of gigabytes.
I wonder if those little screens control our next moves—all of our moves—our lives. Anyone read 1984? Big brother doesn’t need to watch anymore. He has more info than could possibly be used. We have volunteered our biographies via public profiles to see if they mattered. The lure was too tempting to resist. It’s no longer just a carrot on a stick. We can’t live without constant affirmation our lives are thumbs-up, and it’s worse for the younger generations. I can’t imagine growing up in today’s world. Even if you wanted to rebel against such a social force, you would risk too much, according to an impressionable mind: you would risk becoming invisible.
I looked a little deeper. This growing reliance on mobile technology and devices is actually impacting our brains. In The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr explains the impact on the brain’s neuroplasticity. Technology use is changing our neurological wiring, how we think and interpret data. It’s like app creators know our brains crave random pop-up information and scattered topics.
In a recent NPR interview, Adam Alter noted the human attention span has decreased from twelve seconds to eight seconds in the past dozen or so years. This is the same time frame that I-Phones, tablets, and the like became mainstream. I think his book title sums it up: Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked.
Alter suggests the architects of these platforms take a type of Hippocratic Oath where, like doctors, they pledge to do no harm. He hints some companies have a bottom line tied to time on device. Casinos, for example, track gamblers and their time on machines. That makes me wonder: if the gaming commission regulates what is approved for gamblers, who regulates what is approved for app users?
Hollywood uses a similar tactic. The cliffhanger platform Netflix uses keeps us watching episodes the same way app designers keep us looking at our devices. Remember those analogies on standard aptitude tests? Cliffhanger platform : binge watching :: app design : excessive time on smartphone
Was I Pavlov’s dog, too?
I knew, of course, I was just as guilty as those people “yeah, uh-huh,” and “mm-hmm”-ing at me.
When I wasn’t working, I, too, had my head buried in my phone, even when my friends and loved ones were trying to get my response. Just like Pavlov’s dog, I was (and still am) conditioned.
Whenever we hear a ding, we know something needs to be done: check the oven, answer the phone, or open the door. In today’s world, though, we look to our devices: see who just messaged on Facebook, respond to the email that just arrived, or look at the new pictures posted. I’m salivating just thinking about it. How fast would you rate your response time to dings? I knew I was guilty of being overly obedient to the alerts. My phone would say, “Jump,” I’d ask, “How high?”
“Dingifying” the world one cellular customer at a time, one puppet at a time, who are the puppet masters and why are they fighting for our attention? I bet there’s an algorithm that correlates minutes of attention time to a sale of some sort.
Paper Maps, No Apps (Thank you AAA for supplying the maps.)
After I got over being annoyed and then past the dread that arose when I started researching, I took a more realistic look at smartphones in my life. I realized I was missing live opportunities to connect with people and the strange serendipities you notice when you are paying attention. I missed long, quiet afternoons outdoors. I remembered listening to the full song of a cicada as a child. Imagine having the free time to sit and listen to a singing cricket! I wanted to pay close attention to how different life could be without the constant seduction of the flat screen. Moreover, I wanted to examine my habits with a sense of humor.
So, I decided to try something outlandish: an unplugged road trip! It was time to peruse the world without smart technology: no Trip Advisor to find the next hotel, no Yelp to dig up the dirt on a restaurant, and no Siri or Alexa or even a nameless Google voice telling me when to turn left or right. It’s just me, my girlfriend, some luggage, and a lot of attitude. We’re snapping our fingers!
For sixteen days, we lived on the road, detached from social media and smartphones, while navigating several states and one foreign country. We created rules, and allowed ourselves a little license:
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